Tommy's War

WWI - Beginnings and Endings

      More than a century after the outbreak of WWI, we are still getting a lot of gross oversimplifications of the complex period of history that was represented by the early years of the twentieth century. To me personally, the most offensive utterance was the one we heard on the centenary from Michael Gove, but I am aware others find what is coming to be termed the 'Blackadder' view of military history hard to take.


     This is one reason why I was tempted the timeline on this website with 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia. This was a complicated series of treaties made during that year. Among other things, it established the concept of nations or sovereign states in something like the modern sense, and transferred part of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from Germany (actually the Holy Roman Empire) to France.

     After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 - the modern state of Germany was established as a direct consequence of this - the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were seized by Germany. This fact, and the heavy financial reparations demanded by Germany of the country as part of the Treaty of Frankfurt (five billion francs), was the cause of much resentment in France between 1871 and 1914. Nationalism, especially among the many nationalities within the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, was to become an increasingly major phenomenon in the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Nationalist sentiment in Serbia, independent since 1878, was the cause of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia by the 'Black Hand'. This was the direct trigger for the war.

     History could have been different. Alsace and Lorraine could as easily have emerged into the modern era as independent sovereign states in the same way as did Luxembourg. The Sarajevo political murders seem very likely to have led to military conflict in any event, but this could have taken the form of a Third Balkan War rather than the global conflict the world actually saw and whose after-tremors we still feel. But we have to accept that, even if events in Sarajevo hadn't led to world war, some other incident may have done so. International politics were fraught as the twentieth century dawned. There had been a number of other occasions in Europe when tensions could have led to war, such as the annexation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary in 1908, the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911 and the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

     In the aftermath of war, 'war blame' was pinned firmly upon the German nation in general and on Kaiser Wilhelm II in particular (although he was still able to live in comfortable exile in Holland until 1941). The militarily expansionist tendencies of Germany and the instability of its autocratic leader, an institution that was an anachronism in a nation that was in many ways the most modern in the world at that time, were indubitably major factors leading to the war. In the generally accepted version of events, the fuse was lit in early July by means of the 'blank cheque' given to Austria-Hungary to punish Serbia. There are, however, many other factors which should be taken into account if a more accurate picture of events leading to war is to be obtained.

        'What ifs' are pointless, but these are a few of those factors:

        * Around the turn of the century, Britain was looking for European allies: previous policy had been to 'go it alone' but now Britain was beginning to lose its pre-eminence in the world. Since France and Russia were seen as traditional enemies, overtures were being made to Germany as late as 1900.

        * Queen Victoria died in the arms of her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, on 22nd January, 1901.

        * The 'Dogger Bank Incident' of 21st January, 1904, in which Russian battleships fired upon Hull trawlermen, almost led to armed conflict between the two countries.

        * The 'Naval Race' between Britain and Germany to build dreadnought class battleships (effectively 'won' by Britain by 1912) stoked up military rivalry between Britain and Germany.

        * The inflexibility of Russian mobilisation plans made war inevitable once any kind of commitment to support Serbia had been made.

        * The perceived 'encirclement' of Germany by the Triple Entente powers of Britain, France and Russia added to the feeling of Germans of being isolated.

        * The unwillingness of Austria-Hungary to accept the offer of reparations from Serbia in July, 1914 placed that country in an impossible situation.

        * The ineffectual attempts of politicians squandered the last chance for peace. The failure of Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister, must be highlighted in particular. He was the only politician who had a comparatively free hand to could seek a negotiated settlement of what was, after all, an essentially local matter.

     What happened, as we all know, is that Europe stumbled into a war that continued for over four years, leaving many millions of people dead world-wide in the conflict, especially on the Western and Eastern fronts. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and World War II, which claimed many more lives than WWI, are the two best known consequences of World War I. Adolf Hitler was later able to give free vein to his insane visions by portraying the Treaty of Versailles as being even more vindictive than it was.

     Nearer to home, the histories of Britain and Ireland could have been different if the 'Home Rule' debate had been allowed to work its way to a natural conclusion, rather than being interrupted by war.

     One of the beliefs surviving from WWI is that of 'lions led by donkeys', with the generals being cast in the role of donkeys and the ordinary soldiers taking up the roles of lions. 'Lions led by donkeys' is a cliché, but it is hard not to accept it as truth when the military leadership for four years stuck so resolutely to the military thinking of the first half of the nineteenth century, when the examples of industrial war from the American Civil War onwards were available for anyone to see. The only comment I'd add is that we should not forget the example of the junior officers, the actual battlefield leaders. They had a considerably shorter life expectation than the private soldiers.

     So, the war leaders, of whom Douglas Haig is the best known example in Britain, were allowed to carry on throwing shells and men's lives at the enemy according to their own dim lights until 1918.

     Perhaps we should not have expected better of them. We have more recent examples of the military mind at work, such as that of General McArthur, who wanted to turn a civil war in Korea into a thermonuclear one. It is, however, the politicians who finally let us down. None of them could see further than blind support for their military leaders. True, it would not have been an easy task to seek a negotiated peace, especially when there were many, especially within Germany, who thought the war could be brought to a satisfactory military conclusion.

     The entry of the Americans to hostilities in April, 1917 could be said to be the event that broke the stalemate. This wasn't because any particular military action: their battlefield contributions were much more modest in WW1 than WW2. No, it was simply because the German army, freed from the necessity of action on the eastern front by the collapse of Russia, overreached itself by seeking military victory in roughly the period marked by March to July, 1918, before the Americans could gear up for war.

     I have heard it said that, looked at with a wider historical perspective, the two world wars may be said to have brought benefits by accelerating the pace of technological and social change. It is pointed out that many advances in technology were a direct consequence of military research, whilst universal suffrage was only initiated in the decade following WWI and that real social advances didn't come in effect until after WWII. Without the two world wars, it is claimed, the world would now be at something like a 1950 stage of development.

     Here we are firmly on the ground of speculation. However, I am quite prepared to accept that the assertions may be true for technological advances. I am not at all sure for social change.

     Old Age Pensions, one of the first genuine social advances, were introduced in 1889 in Germany and 1908 in Britain. It is true that votes for all women over 21 were introduced here in 1928. This initiative is often described as a 'reward' for the contribution of women to victory in WWI. But who is to say that the Suffragette movement wouldn't have achieved its aims earlier than this, if it didn't call off its campaign at the outbreak of hostilities? After all, voting was universal in other countries long before 1928. In New Zealand, this was as early as 1893.

     If anything, society went backwards in many ways in the Twenties and Thirties. This was partially a consequence of the financial privations following WWI. The major social advances only began after 1945. Even though the financial effects of WW2 were again dire, there was at this time a strong feeling of 'never again' in the air, one that crossed the political divide.

     This is all speculation. However, even if I am wrong and the two wars did bring social as well as technological benefits, I am convinced the price was too high to pay.